The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

How India’s Aircraft Carriers Tell the Story of Its Diplomatic History

India’s five aircraft carriers through time may represent the four stages of its evolving foreign policy.

Krzysztof Iwanek
How India’s Aircraft Carriers Tell the Story of Its Diplomatic History
Credit: CSL via Wikimedia Commons

While India operates one aircraft carrier at the moment, New Delhi is planning to operate  at least three such ships, provided it will have the funds. The construction of such a large machine is a strategic choice not only in pure military terms, however. For a country like India, which needs foreign technology, it is also a political statement. It is not only about whom the carrier could be used against, but whom to cooperate with to procure the needed systems – and whom to leave out from cooperation.

Here I argue that India’s five aircraft carriers – the past, present and future ones – may turn out to represent four stages in New Delhi’s evolving foreign policy. This will, therefore, not be a text on technology, but on how choices in importing foreign technologies are intertwined with diplomacy. To be sure, each of the ships is at a completely different stage now: the first two ones were already decommissioned, the third, still operating, has been guarding India’s waters for the past years, but the fourth is under construction, and the fifth is only being planned. So how do these aircraft carriers carry the air of political and diplomatic change?

INS Viraat and INS Vikrant (R11). Both of these carriers were British ships, the construction of which had started way back during the Second World War. While Vikrant had been purchased by New Delhi as a yet incomplete ship, Viraat was sold to India only after it served London’s purposes for decades. Both carriers are pieces of history now as both had been acquired long ago: INS Vikrant was commissioned to the Indian service in 1961 and Viraat in 1987.

Both years, interestingly, belong to an era of the Indo-Soviet friendship and yet the only aircraft carriers New Delhi commanded at the time were British-made. It is a symbolic reminder of how technology-starved India was acquiring some Western technology and resources even in the midst of the Cold War (when New Delhi was clearly closer to Moscow than to the West). The part played here by the United Kingdom in the Indian civil nuclear program serves as yet another reminder.

INS Vikramaditya. Purchased from Russia, this old, Soviet-era aircraft carrier could have as well sunk a lot of Indo-Russian bonhomie. It was reconstructed and modernized by Russians as per Indian expectations, but its delivery was hugely delayed (it was ordered in 2004 and eventually commissioned in 2013). As the Indian side was unhappy with the price demanded by the seller, it took years of negotiations to find a middle ground. India still could have felt it lost a lot of money on this old machine while Russia lost part of its reputation in New Delhi.

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INS Vikramaditya is surely a symbol of a transition period in the 1990s and early 2000s: a time when New Delhi-Moscow relations went from a special, ideology-backed partnership to disenchanted and pragmatic cooperation. It is also, even more accurately, a symbol of what went wrong. The has-been power of Russia no longer causes so much awe in India and its technology is no longer so advanced and attractive (barring a few important sectors, however, of which the S-400 is the best example). The quarrel about pricing demonstrated how the once-special relationship is now as down-to-earth as relations between states are usually bound to be.

INS Vikrant. Currently under construction, Vikrant is to be India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier. It symbolically represents New Delhi’s current international standing – which many commentators would like to call ‘strategic autonomy.’ New Delhi would like to retain what it can and it wants from its cooperation with Russia, but it also means to enhance its growing relationship with the United States. This ship will similarly represent a mixture of imports (from various sources) and India’s own work. Some of its major solutions will be following the design of INS Vikramaditya: the launch system will be of the same type (STOBAR, which is a ski-jump launch system) and some of the systems will be provided by a Russian company (Rosoboronexport). The aviation complex was designed by another Russian firm (Nevskoye Design Bureau). However, the ship is to be propelled by U.S.-made turbines to be provided by General Electric, just like the Washington-New Delhi relationship currently propels India in other directions as well.

INS Vishaal. The ship is in the project phase as of now and thus there is no telling how it might be built. Vishaal is to be India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier, but will not follow the same model as Vikrant. Its launch system is to be CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) or, more precisely, its new generation: EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System). Such a system is being developed by the Americans and thus India would have to team up with them; so far, an Indo-American working group has been formed for that purpose. A change to a different launch system will probably affect the type of machines used on it as well. Vikramaditya uses the STOBAR system and Vikrant is designed for the same, and the primary embarked aircraft of the former carrier is the Russian MiG-29K. If Vishaal is fit with EMALS, it will make it more in tune with Western-made machines, and capable of working with heavier planes, such as the American E-2 Hawkeye.

If we assume it is constructed the way it is conceived now, the carrier may represent the future stage of India’s diplomacy, a one which is now nascent (and desired in New Delhi). In that phase, India will remain unaligned to any of the global superpowers, but will be cooperating with the United States more than with any other.